The Startup
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Encouraging Diversity in Stories Puts Any Dream Within Reach

Stories are powerful. They teach lessons, provide distractions, and inspire audiences to expand the scope of their aspirations. The greatest stories relate to us on a personal level. We identify with the hopes, dreams, struggles, and triumphs of different characters, and that identification often begins with a character’s physical appearance. When we see ourselves as the hero in stories, we see ourselves differently in the world.

My son believes wholeheartedly that he is a Power Ranger. My bruises are a testament to his crude, yet burgeoning, martial arts skills. What can I say? He is four-years-old and deeply committed to his heroic character as his older brother was before him. I can relate because I grew up seeing myself in most movies, television, and literature. I am a 6’ 1”, blue-eyed, (formerly) blond-haired, white man, so this is no stretch.

As Americans, we live in a consumer-driven economy and culture. We create and export a lot of art in the form of music, movies, pop-culture novelties, and other shiny objects. We are not alone in this pursuit, but any visit to a Disney property reaffirms that we created a rock-solid blueprint for marketing, merchandising, and consumption. The problem is that those in the story business have been packaging, merchandising, distributing, and selling “my” story for far too long.

You know that disclaimer in a movie that states, “the events, characters, and firms depicted in this photography are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual firms, is purely coincidental?” Consider the so-called “Greatest Story Ever Told.” Is that why almost every movie about Jesus casts a white man in the role? The producers are worried about a celestial lawsuit? Those executives are not alone.

Did you know that over 500 years ago Pope Alexander VI likely changed my perception of the appearance of Jesus when he commissioned paintings based on his favorite nephew as part of a propaganda campaign? Talk about false advertising! Here’s what I know, a Middle Eastern, Jewish carpenter most certainly had darker skin than I do.

We need more diverse stories and content more than ever. When you consider that Hollywood is cranking out remakes of old movies for new audiences, don’t you think we’re ready for a much broader, color palate of stories and heroes? Hollywood is not alone. We need these stories across every industry.

More Diversity in Content on the Way

It’s no secret that pop culture, especially Hollywood and Madison Avenue, has a woeful track record of elevating multicultural stories. Even though Hollywood leans towards liberal politics (based on all the award acceptance speeches), the business people make decisions about what they think will sell and deliver the greatest return to their investors.

You might say, I’ve watched a lot of movies with “Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, Kerry Washington, Idris Elba, and others. What’s the problem?” There has been progress in many areas, but the power structure that greenlights and funds stories has lacked diversity.

Tyler Perry built his own media empire by telling stories about Black characters, and there are signs that money is flowing into the production of more diverse movies, television, and streaming content. Just a few examples outside of traditional media and studio companies include:

  • A $100 million round of investment in SpringHill Co., a media and production company founded by Lebron James and Maverick Carter;
  • The early work by the Obama’s Higher Ground Productions; and
  • Everything Oprah Winfrey and Harpo Productions touch, including her recent “OWN Spotlight: Where Do We Go From Here?”
  • Jordan Peele continues to deliver amazing work under his Monkeypaw Productions company.

It was major news less than five years ago when Mattel gave its line of Barbie dolls a major makeover to finally recognize a more diverse population. Was this a move geared towards clearing a guilty conscience or because of declining revenue? I don’t know. I was a G.I. Joe kid growing up, but I saw stories over the years from Black women who expressed sadness and shame that their toys didn’t look like them.

It’s not just skin color, but clothing sizes that have started to break through the polished veneer of the traditional advertising game. As I walked through a shopping mall in 2019, I was happy to see promotional photos of young models displayed prominently that did not adhere to the idea that only a size zero is commercially acceptable.

Encourage Diversity in STEM by Telling Your Story

I have worked in marketing, public relations, and communications in the technology industry for over 20 years. That particular job function attracts diversity in terms of female representation, but not as much with Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). The executive headshots of many tech companies, and in particular the payments and financial technology sectors where I worked for over a decade, looked like a private school yearbook — white kids in their blue, buttoned-down Oxford shirts.

Outside of marketing, there has been more geographical and ethnic diversity as the data shows, and I believe I’ve benefited from that diversity of experiences and perspectives. I vividly recall a former colleague sharing his excitement over earning his U.S. citizenship. That simple parking-lot conversation had a powerful effect on me. I remember sharing drinks and stories with a Pakistani, Muslim colleague. It was interesting to hear about his family life and community in his adopted hometown of Dallas, Texas. I worked with a female, engineering executive from India who persevered through obstacles to achieve great success in the technology industry. These people, their stories, and their contributions make the industry a better place to earn a living and build a career.

More needs to happen to bring more diversity into the tech world. I work with Intel Corporation as a marketing consultant, and I have been incredibly impressed with their dedication and investment in creating a culture that champions diversity on every level. I am encouraged by some signals in the tech space that things will change, but it has never been more important for people in the industry to tell their personal stories.

As someone who works with technology executives from different backgrounds, I believe stories of diversity matter. I believe that telling your unvarnished, personal story complete will be an inspiration to someone who is looking for a reason to try instead of an excuse to quit. The story is even more powerful when it includes a reasonable disclosure of your failures and triumphs, but there is still such a thing as T.M.I.

The website “Because of The We Can” recently published a blog recognizing Jasmine Bowers as the first Black person to receive a doctorate in Computer Science from the University of Florida. Yes, this is wonderful news and should be held up as an example and story for other Black women. The fact that this is news shows how far we have to travel as an industry. This accomplishment should be common enough to warrant a backyard cookout or some other party with family and friends, not news in the blogosphere.

I share these perspectives as an encouragement to anyone who has a story to tell. We are still suckers for the classic rags-to-riches, David-vs-Goliath, and redemption stories, and I look forward to hearing, reading, or watching yours.

If I can be of any help to you in this process, please contact me on Twitter @davidfontaine.

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David Fontaine

David Fontaine

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Writer. Musician. Marketer. Grow brands for technologists, developers, engineers and companies with thought leadership content, digital engagement & tech.